I woke up this morning and watched the river that runs through the heart of Bangkok come to life. Enormous trains of barges are pulled by tugs up the river and jostle for space with long slim ferries.
The river runs like a backbone through Bangkok, but the city’s beating heart and arteries are the roads. There are huge roads jammed with cars everywhere. The city lives with a background roar of traffic and an ever-present smog of exhaust (so dense that last evening we saw sunspots on the Sun through the filter provided by the smog). Apparently locals discuss the day’s traffic in much the same way people in other countries discuss the weather.
Our plan for the morning involved going to see the floating markets and the train market with a local guide. We were met by our driver at 8am and he explained that our guide was stuck so we’d pick her up on the way. She was about a kilometre away. We set out into the traffic and almost immediately ground to a halt. It took us an hour to cover the distance to our guide and our driver explained that was pretty typical for Bangkok. It seems that over the last few years everyone in Bangkok has traded a motorbike for a car, so the roads are filled with vehicles. But cars don’t flow like bikes, when in clumps they judder along.
After picking up our guide we juddered further out of town. Our poor planning was then revealed in all its glory when we realised that it was an hour-and-a-half to drive to the markets. So that would have seen us spend a minimum of four hours driving today. On top of that our guide briefed us on how touristy that whole thing was as part of explaining what to watch out for (stall holders tripping you into the stall so you have to buy what you spilled, for example). We took a vote and decided to ditch the whole market experience and head back into Bangkok.
The drive into Bangkok took us past a huge march by the opposition protesting against the government. They are threatening to bring the entire city to a standstill next week, and were doing a fine job of practising deadlock in the part we were in today.
Our new destination was the Royal Palace and as it turned out we were very pleased to have more time there than we expected. The Palace is one of the most beautiful complexes we’ve seen. The core of the Palace is a huge temple, the entirety of which is decorated with paintings and statues and mosaics. The colour is stunning and heightened by the fact that there are reflections everywhere from glass and ceramics and gold-leaf. The architecture reflects Thai history and empire and so there are Chinese influences, domes mirroring Angkor Wat, motifs from Lao, wrought iron lights from London, thanks to the Anglophile Rama V. The overall effect could be gaudy, but seems to work wonderfully.
Inside the Temple sits the Emerald Buddha. It’s not actually emerald and may not be quite the 2,000 years old claimed but it is certainly extremely old and sits atop tiers of gold and jewels and decoration. The overall effect is lovely, although the Buddha itself is too small to really be seen from a distance.
The surrounding Palace is now only rarely used in State occasions. It’s lovely too, but heavily influenced by Victorian London. Rama V was brought up with an English tutor, the Ana story is apparently based on some reality, and went to school in England. He became friends with Queen Victoria and returned to take his throne and modernise the country to the English model. Architecturally he pulled it off, and they do drive on the left; the guards outside the palace were not up to Buckingham Palace standards, though, as evidenced by their twitches, slightly unpolished shoes, and the fact their guns had no bullets.
Then once again into the traffic for a fascinating visit to a Buddha that lies in distinct contrast to the Emerald Buddha. The Temple of the Reclining Buddha houses an enormous Buddha that’s lying peacefully on its side. It’s the second largest in Thailand and certainly impressive. The boys dropped the traditional 108 coins into the alms kettles behind the Buddha.
We then visited the monastery and saw individual Buddha statues being gilded. The monastery was one of the original places where medical massage was developed and taught and there are ancient tablets depicting pressure points and their usage. All of which stands in stark contrast to Bangkok’s modern-day massage reputation.
Our final stop for the day was the flower markets. Flowers are a big thing in Thailand as they form an important part of temple offerings and marriage ceremonies. The flower markets are very much not a tourist experience – and so were great. The markets are a bustle of people and colour and smells. We spent our entire time jumping out of the way of men pushing baskets and carts of flowers and vegetables through the narrow lanes. Which was immensely more fun than dodging cars.